DURING a meeting last April with medics who had fled to Britain from Bahrain in fear of their lives, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon heard harrowing stories about the brutality of the regime’s crackdown on anti-government protesters.
Even doctors and nurses treating the injured in Bahrain’s hospitals have been targeted and a delegation from the Bahrain Justice and Development Movement (BJDM) explained how they were summoned for interrogation after hearing that colleagues had been tortured.
Sturgeon was also informed that tear gas was being used as part of a government crackdown to collectively punish whole villages and in response she said the Scottish Government would be exploring ways to “build international pressure on Bahrain to make genuine reform.”
“I am very supportive and want to support you as much as possible,” Sturgeon said, adding the Scottish National Party had been opposed to the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix taking place just a few days earlier.
But she was unaware that the previous month the SQA had signed a deal to continue working with a government that stands accused of gross human rights violations.
For two years now innocent civilians in Bahrain have suffered appalling violence at the hands of the state’s security forces who have raped, beaten, electrocuted, jailed and killed pro-democracy campaigners. Victims include women and children from the Shiah population who began protesting during the 2011 Arab Spring. Shiites claim the ruling Sunni minority discriminates against them via a policy of sectarian apartheid. According to the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, while Shiites exceed 70 per cent of the population they occupy less than 18 per cent of top jobs in government.
The island state lies off the coast of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which was concerned following the Arab Spring uprisings that Bahrain’s unrest would spread over its causeway to its much bigger neighbour. Saudi and other Middle Eastern states helped the Bahraini government to restore order but, despite the crackdown, the 2011 Bahrain Grand Prix – the sporting event which has put the island on the global sporting map in recent years – was cancelled on 21 February because of continuing protests, including from drivers such as Britain’s Damon Hill and Australian Mark Webber.
Later that year, an independent inquiry concluded that Bahrain’s security forces used excessive force against peaceful protesters and had arbitrarily detained, tortured and denied people fair trials. Human rights activists called again for a cancellation of the 2012 Grand Prix due to continuing reports of alleged human rights abuses committed by the Bahraini authorities but this time the race was held as planned, on 22 April.
The event gave the ruling regime hope that the protests would die down but Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International (AI) said the government still regularly tortures opponents and it is alleged that children as young as 13 have been illegally detained and assaulted. They claim state violence continues unabated and the regime still brutally represses dissenting voices. In a briefing published last week, AI said people are jailed for expressing views via social media and for taking part in peaceful marches. Over the past week three people have been killed during anti-government protests, including 20-year-old Mahmood Aljazeeri who was struck on the head with a tear gas canister.
In January, a decision by Bahrain’s highest appeal court to uphold sentences against 13 opposition figures was met with condemnation from the international community, including Britain, France, USA and the UN. The European Parliament called for sanctions, including restricting trade and freezing the assets of those responsible for human rights violations.
The Scottish Qualifications Authority’s (SQA) deal with the government of Bahrain has proved controversial because there is concern the Scottish public body could be propping up a government system which allows for discrimination and human rights abuses.
BJDM said employees within Bahrain’s education sector have been targeted by the state, including teachers and university professors. Last year, the organisation successfully campaigned to persuade Edinburgh University not to sign a deal with the regime. A university spokesperson explained: “The university was offered the opportunity to assist the higher education sector in Bahrain with capacity building as part of a modernisation programme initiated by Bahrain’s ministry of education and higher education commission. The university conducted due diligence and based on due diligence the university decided not to enter into any agreement.”
A BDJM spokesman said: “We would caution against any foreign government providing support for the Bahraini regime whilst it is committing major human rights abuses. It is important to note that the education sector has been on the receiving end of the regime’s abuses with students and teachers being dismissed on political grounds. The urgent and immediate reform needed in Bahrain’s education system is to end the targeting of teachers and students for holding political opinions and ending the classroom discrimination we have witnessed over the past two years.”
Mark Bevan, of AI in Scotland, added his concern. He said: “The SQA is a well respected Scottish organisation with international influence and its values include integrity and innovation. But if an agency of the Scottish Government is to form a partnership with Bahrain then it must build in contractual safeguards to ensure that none of the services it provides can assist in any way the commissioning of human rights abuses.
“The Scottish Government should have clear guidelines for any of its agencies entering into commercial relationships of this kind including a proper assessment of the human rights risks and implications.”
Desert storm: troubled island
HISTORY: Bahrain’s name means “two seas”. The ancient Sumerians viewed it as an island paradise where eternal life could be lived. Run by the Khalifah family, members of the Bani Utbah tribe, who expelled the Persians, it was virtually a British protectorate for more than a century after signing a treaty with Britain in 1861. It gained independence in 1971, and since then has forged close links with the United States. It was one of the first states in the Gulf to discover oil.
POLITICS: The Khalifah family has ruled Bahrain since 1783. The country is now a constitutional monarchy with an elected legislative assembly. However, majority Shia Muslims are demanding more power from the Sunni-led government. In 2011 the government launched a crackdown on pro-democracy protests, calling in the Saudi military to crush protests by demonstrators demanding a greater say in government and an end to what Shias say is systematic discrimination against them in jobs and services.
ECONOMY: A banking and financial services powerhouse, Bahrain is less dependent on oil to keep its economy afloat than most Gulf states. It is prosperous and economically stable. Last year, while the government was still cracking down on protesters, the country was controversially allowed to host a Formula 1 Grand Prix, a move which brought millions of dollars into the country.
RELIGION: Bahrainis were amongst the first to embrace Islam, in 629. Bahrain became a principal centre of knowledge for hundreds of years stretching from the early days of Islam in the 7th century to the 18th century. Today, the citizen population is 99.8 per cent Muslim. There are about 1,000 Christian citizens and fewer than 40 Jewish citizens.